Z e t e o
Reading, Looking, Listening, . . . Questioning

Ta-Nehisi Coates on Mass Incarceration: Parts VIII and IX of IX

Categories: Drew Whitcup, ZiR


lead_largeThis week, I am continuing to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ in-depth analysis of mass incarceration in the United States. In the remaining two parts of the piece, Coates revisits the legacy of Daniel Patrick Moynihan and his now-famous report:

Moynihan is in the midst of a renaissance. Fifty years after the publication of ‘The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,’ a coterie of sociologists, historians, and writers are declaring it prophecy. In their version of history, a courageous and blameless Moynihan made one mistake: He told the truth. For his sins—loving the black family enough to be honest—Moynihan was crucified by an intolerant cabal of obstinate leftists and Black Power demagogues. ‘Liberals brutally denounced Moynihan as a racist,’ the columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote in The New York Times this past spring. In the eyes of his new acolytes, Moynihan has been vindicated by the rising percentage of female-headed households and the intractable problems of America’s inner cities. Intimidated by ‘the vitriolic attacks and acrimonious debate’ over the black family, as the sociologist William Julius Wilson has put it, liberal scholars steered clear of the controversy. Conservatives stepped into the breach, eagerly taking up Moynihan’s charge to examine the family, but stripping it of any structural context, and dooming the dream of a benevolent welfare state.

As he did earlier in his piece, Coates credits Moynihan with having had— at the very least—good intentions. He reminds us that Moynihan, at first, argued for serious economic reforms as a method to combat growing problems in the poor black communities of America. Echoing Moynihan, Lyndon Johnson even stated that “white America needs to accept responsibility” for problems in the black community. But Coates reminds us that the Moynihan of the Johnson era soon became the Moynihan of the Nixon era, and his arguments in the 1970s placed blame on black Americans, calling them “self-damaging.”

In casting African Americans as beyond the purview of polite and civilized society, in referring to them as a race of criminals, Moynihan joined the long tradition of black criminalization. In so doing, he undermined his own stated aims in writing ‘The Negro Family’ in the first place. One does not build a safety net for a race of predators. One builds a cage.

This, in the end, is Coates’ thesis. Whatever the motivation was behind the liberal analyses of the 1960s, they’ve found a perverse outlet in the mass incarceration of black Americans. A disintegrated family structure was not an immaculately conceived social ill. Root causes, however, proved too difficult or politically fraught to address. The most expedient measure is to lock more and more people behind bars. More families will disintegrate. More joblessness and poverty will result. But the national legacy of controlling black people by denying their liberty requires little imagination and little discomfort in the political arena. Put simply, it’s lazy and it’s generally acceptable. Even current (bipartisan!) rhetoric calling for an end to mass incarceration seems to miss the point, Coates says:

Mass incarceration is, ultimately, a problem of troublesome entanglements. To war seriously against the disparity in unfreedom requires a war against a disparity in resources. And to war against a disparity in resources is to confront a history in which both the plunder and the mass incarceration of blacks are accepted commonplaces. Our current debate over criminal-justice reform pretends that it is possible to disentangle ourselves without significantly disturbing the other aspects of our lives, that one can extract the thread of mass incarceration from the larger tapestry of racist American policy.

Coates concludes his piece by tying its message to this “larger tapestry.” Readers familiar with his previous work will recognize that in Coates’ eyes, true rebuilding requires the kind of excavation that is no longer a part of the national conversation, but perhaps should be:

Moynihan may have left any recommendations as to ‘favored treatment’ for blacks out of his report. But the question has not disappeared. In fact, it is more urgent than ever. The economic and political marginalization of black people virtually ensured that they would be the ones who would bear the weight of what one of President Nixon’s own aides called his ‘bullshit’ crime policy, and thus be fed into the maw of the Gray Wastes. And should crime rates rise again, there is no reason to believe that black people, black communities, black families will not be fed into the great maw again. Indeed, the experience of mass incarceration, the warehousing and deprivation of whole swaths of our country, the transformation of that deprivation into wealth transmitted through government jobs and private investment, the pursuit of the War on Drugs on nakedly racist grounds, have only intensified the ancient American dilemma’s white-hot core—the problem of ‘past unequal treatment,’ the difficulty of ‘damages,’ the question of reparations.

—Drew Whitcup, Zeteo Contributing Writer

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